Chief Irv Powless: Legend and friend

I met the late Onondaga rotiane Irv Powless 40 years ago when I enrolled as a student at Syracuse University in 1977.

In my class were a number of Onondagas including Barry Powless, the son of Irv. Barry was an exceptional lacrosse player in the tradition of his family, clearly the best stickhandler on the SU team. Also in that historical class were Freida Jacques, later a clanmother, Ronnie Leigh Papineau-Goeman, a nationally acclaimed basketmaker, and Wendy Huff, a Seneca educator. There were 30 Iroquois students at that time somewhat adrift in a school which did little to connect with the native people in New York or the Onondaga Nation just south of campus.

We organized as a group called the Onkwehonweh:neha and got the school’s attention when we demanded the removal of the Saltine Warrior, SU’s mascot. That tomahawk wielding lunatic had no place in an institute of higher learning but the challenge was how to remove it without rancor. We decided to submit the issue to the Onondaga Nation Council of which Irv Powless was a member along with his father Irving Powless Sr. They were then known as “young man Irv” and “old man Irv” across the Confederacy. Both were former athletes who played lacrosse against and with the Mohawks with my uncle Angus “Shine” George a noted opponent.

We asked the Onondaga Nation to serve as mediators in the mascot issue and in turn they opened the longhouse doors to the Lamda Chi fraternity which sponsored the Saltine Warrior. Over the course of a few hours the frat brothers presented their case for retaining the mascot then listened to Chief Powless Jr. and the other Onondaga leaders when they explained the harm these cartoonish figures caused to native people. Chief Powless was particularly diplomatic, guiding them to understand the need to remove the Warrior. At the meeting’s end Lambda Chi endorsed our position and the Warrior was retired.

I saw Chief Powless on many other occasions in which he used his intelligence to get people to understand why the Onondaga Nation was insistent on retaining its historical status as an independent entity. He spoke with passion about his people in whatever forum presented itself, never wavering in his defense of the Confederacy even as he counseled for peace.

In 1996 the Confederacy was confronted by a crisis involving the attempts by New York State to impose severe restrictions, including taxes, on products sold on native territory to non-natives. There was serious disagreement internally as to the regulation of commerce particularly tobacco. The Onondaga Nation had recently emerged from a conflict in which two tobacco outlets run by individuals were shut down and the merchants banished. The tensions caused by this were only gradually diminishing but New York was determined to collect money from the Iroquois.

Chief Powless was the lead negotiator in a series of meetings with the State which took place from August, 1996 to May of the next year. He used his verbal skills and his deep knowledge about the Confederacy’s political history to gradually persuade the State into understanding why the issue of taxation was one of sovereignty based upon aboriginal and treaty law.

I recall one meeting in Albany when the State representatives spoke with pride about the hundreds of statutes it had regarding taxation, the environment, hunting and fishing, all of which were areas of contention between itself and the Confederacy. The State then asked if the Iroquois had anything in comparison.

It was then that Chief Powless rose and used his famous common sense to respond. He said the Iroquois has only four rules about hunting and fishing, about life in general. The State delegates were surprised but intrigued. What, they wanted to know, were those four rules in contrast to its thousands of regulations?

The Iroquois laws Chief Powless said were: One, take only what you need; Two, use all of which you take; Three, be thankful for all of which you have and; Four, leave things better that when you found them.

Such was Chief Irv’s clarity that the State came to agree to every position taken by the Confederacy.

Unfortunately the internal opposition among the Senecas of Cattaraugus and Allegany and the Oneida Nation of New York (the governments there are not part of the Confederacy) led to the breakdown of what would have been an historic Trade and Commerce compact. Yet the negotiations were critical in having New York state retreat overall from trying to impose sales taxes on Native lands and that was largely due to the tact of Chief Powless. So whenever a person buys anything on our territories without having to pay state taxes we can all thank Chief Powless to taking a stand and refusing to compromise on the Native right to self-regulation.

Chief Powless showed his leaderships in many other areas from the building of the Onondaga arena to the securing of the World Indoor Lacrosse Championships on Onondaga territory in 2015. He was a good and friendly man ever ready to tell a story or to share a laugh. Over the decades I knew him I never heard him raise his voice in anger or speak with hostility about any person. When I think of what it requires to be a rotiane in the best sense Chief Powless exemplified this in every instance of his 88 years and for that I am grateful.

On another note for years I tried to persuade Chief Powless to summarize his life in book form. He was reluctant to do so given his preference for the spoken word. I asked Lesley Forester to meet Irv and see if they could replicate the success of her work with Tom Porter Sakokwanonkwas’s And Grandma Said memoir. It took some time but Irv’s book Who Are These People Anyway was published by, ironically, Syracuse University Press in 2016.

Well done Daha’tgatdohs.

Related Posts